In 1964 I began developing and using a major third tuning for the guitar. The original pupose was to find a method for atonal improvisation for jazz. I was influenced by the music of Ornette Coleman, George Russell, John Coltrane and others who were breaking new ground in jazz in the 1960s. I was searching for a better way to facilitate improvisation using the atonal composition systems of Arnold Schoenberg. The major third tuning provides a way to do this.Later, I began to utilize the major third tuning in all my commercial studio work (in New York) and with a few exceptions found it to be more versatile. At first I used a 6 string guitar but then went to 7 string and finally to 8 string guitars.My 8 string guitars were made or modified by Jim DiSerio in New York in the 1960s.

Eight String Guitars Modified or Made By Jim DiSerio

I recently had an 8 string guitar modified in Portand by Saul Koll with a custom pickup made by Bill Lawrence.

Eight String Guitar with neck by Saul Koll
The tuning used for 8 strings:
8 (string)
8th low E; 7th Ab; 6th C; 5th E; 4th Ab; 3rd C; 2nd E; 1st Ab. (.008 string)

The tuning used for 7 strings:
7 (string)
7th low E; 6th Ab; 5th C; 4th E; 3rd Ab; 2nd C; 1st E;
(This tuning covers the written range for guitar).

The tuning used for 6 strings:
6 (string)
6th low E; 5th Ab; 4th C; 3rd E; 2nd Ab; 1st C;
(This 6 string tuning doesn’t cover the written range for guitar but works for a start).

Adding strings to the guitar using the major third tuning becomes similar to adding notes to a piano keyboard. Because of the consistant tuning it becomes relatively easy for the mind and the fingers to adapt to adding a string or strings. 

Advantage of the major third tuning.

1. For single note playing;

One position of four frets contains a chromatic scale (all twelve notes) which means all possible scales are in one position. No finger stretches or shifts are required for any scale. Adjacent octaves maintain the same fingering.

Sight reading becomes easier because you rarely have to make decisions for what fingerings to use. In general you play the same note with the same finger regardless of the key or tonality you are in (or lack of key for atonal playing).

This doesn’t eliminate the use of alternative fingerings (slides, trills, etc.). This tuning standardizes fingering and becomes a basis for a new system to play the guitar. The recent availability of relatively inexpensive “off the shelf” 7 string guitars makes this tuning possible for the guitarist interested in new approaches to guitar playing.

It gives the modern jazz player another (better?) way to play more complex music. I’ve included in the scale section a wide varity of scales that can be used for improvising. Because all possible scales fall within four frets, the fingerings are easy and can be interchanged without shifts. For example, you can start a phrase in F major and then switch to Gb major, then back to F major without shifting position.

2. For Chords; 

Close position chords become relatively easy to play. Spread voiced chords contain all chord notes. For example, a C7b9 is not substituted by a Db diminished seventh chord. Chord forms (fingerings) become standard regardless of the octave or set of strings used. I haven’t included all possible chords (all inversions). This will get you started to see if this tuning works for you. I haven’t included any open string chords but the possibilties are endless.

Disadvantage of the major third tuning.
It’s not easy to play simple folk chords. They are quite difficult to play with this tuning. If all you want to do with the guitar is sing folk tunes, don’t try this.

Much of the classical guitar literature becomes difficult or impossible to play because of frequent use of open D and A strings. However, I found Bach and early lute music easier to play with this tuning. Jim DiSerio made my eight string classical guitar with a capo on the low Ab string, bringing it up to an A without affecting the tuning. That solved the problem of the “open” A string.To view chords, scales and examples of chord progressions in the major third tuning click on the links below.

ScalesChordsChord Progressions